5 Non-Financial Classics for Investors

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The great investor Charlie Munger once said that Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-B  ) (NYSE: BRK-A  ) remarkable track record was achieved by Warren Buffett "sitting on his ass and reading." Munger went on to say, "If you want wisdom, you'll get it sitting on your ass. That's the way it comes."

If that's what it takes, then I'm up for the challenge. Wisdom won't be achieved solely by reading investment books, however. Sometimes it's important to read literature, philosophy, and a wide range of other subjects, too, in order to fully develop your investing acumen and disposition.

Below are five non-financial classic books that might be fun to read this summer as part of your investing education.

1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Buffett believes that, "the most important quality for an investor is temperament not intellect." For Buffett, the key to investing success is remaining rational when the market acts irrationally. Of course, this is much more easily said than done.

When it comes to temperament, there might not be a better teacher than Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor who also happened to be a pretty talented Stoic philosopher.

In Meditations, written in the second century A.D., Aurelius sets forth his philosophy in a series of short passages. In one of my favorites, he urges everyone to:

...display those virtues which are wholly in your own power -- integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity.

He then asks, "Do you see how many virtues you can already display without the excuse of lack of talent or aptitude?"

Self-mastery is one of the greatest of all attributes for Marcus Aurelius, and many of his meditations are devoted to improvement in this area. Any investor who would like to develop their temperament will find this work to be an invaluable guide.

2. The Complete Plays of Shakespeare by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare's plays are full of wisdom and keen insights, and I believe that anyone will come away richer for having read them. The Motley Fool, of course, got its name from As You Like It: "A fool, a fool, I met a fool i' the forest, a motley fool." Back in the day, fools were those individuals who could speak the truth to kings and queens, and we aim to carry on that noble tradition of telling the truth to the powerful.

If you were to choose just one Shakespeare play to begin with, you might consider Hamlet. There you will find the famous advice from Polonius to his son:

Neither a borrower nor lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night be day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Is there better advice for any young person than "to thine ownself be true"?

Of the three books on President Abraham Lincoln's White House desk, one was the complete works of Shakespeare. I think investors might also enjoy reading one of the greatest writers ever in the English language.

3. The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus

Motley Fool CEO Tom Gardner recently recommended The Praise of Folly to everyone here at Fool HQ. This ironic essay, written by the Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus in 1509, uses irony to make fun of corruption and superstition in Renaissance Europe. This is very similar to using humor and satire to expose the worst abuses on Wall Street.

It's easy to see why Tom Gardner appreciates this particular work. At one point, Erasmus writes,

For whatever a fool has in his heart, he both shows it in his looks and expresses it in his discourse; while the wise men's are those two tongues which the same Euripides mentions, whereof the one speaks truth, the other what they judge most seasonable for the occasion. 

The Praise of Folly was an early attempt at reforming the status quo more than 500 years ago, and contemporary American readers will be amused to discover that "Folly" is alive and well in the 21st century.

4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

With the recent release of a film version of The Great Gatsby, most of us are familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel. This beautifully written book provides penetrating insights into our culture and financial system.

This story is about the American Dream gone awry. James Gatz, who reinvents himself as Jay Gatsby, wants to win the heart of Daisy Buchanan, whose "voice is full of money." The love affair doesn't quite work out in the end. Fitzgerald writes,

He [Gatsby] had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it...Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then but no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...

I can't think of a better book to read on the beach this summer, if you haven't read it already. And it will definitely make you think more deeply about the role of money and status in our society.

5. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin's incredible life is almost beyond comprehension. He was the quintessential self-made man who eventually became known as "The First American." It's not easy for a working-class boy to eventually get his face on the $100 bill.

Charlie Munger recommends reading anything about his personal hero, Ben Franklin, so this autobiography is a great place to start.

Among the many truly remarkable things about Ben Franklin is the fact that he was so good at so many different things. He was a successful writer and inventor and diplomat and...the list goes on and on. While most of us will never become quite so multitalented, we will benefit as investors by being curious about as many things as possible. A lot of successful investors tend to be generalists who are passionately interested in a wide variety of things. That's why reading Ben Franklin or Shakespeare might be just as important to your investing education as reading the latest value investing tome.

Enjoy your summer and happy reading!


Read/Post Comments (11) | Recommend This Article (21)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 09, 2013, at 3:14 PM, TMFfinosus wrote:


    What an awesome article! Thanks for the insights.

  • Report this Comment On July 09, 2013, at 3:58 PM, Schneidku40 wrote:

    I read Benjamin Franklin's autobiography a year ago. It really is a great book. He was very motivated to achieve and it was inspiring.

  • Report this Comment On July 09, 2013, at 4:50 PM, TMFBane wrote:

    Thanks for the comments!

    Former Fool Todd Wenning mentioned another classic to me earlier today that also might be of interest. The book is called "Letters from a Stoic" by Seneca:

    That one looks pretty promising to me.

  • Report this Comment On July 09, 2013, at 5:55 PM, TMFWillSommers wrote:

    Great list John. I'm reading Walter Issacson's biography of Benjamin Franklin right now. It's a good one, and there's plenty of lessons to apply to business.

  • Report this Comment On July 09, 2013, at 11:16 PM, Hanage wrote:

    Thanks for your insights John. Also for:

    "We will benefit as investors by being curious about as many things as possible."

  • Report this Comment On July 11, 2013, at 12:08 AM, Zombie111 wrote:

    Thanks for the list. I tried The Praise of Folly but will try again (in English this time, not Italian).

    Maybe an extended list in a year's time?

  • Report this Comment On July 11, 2013, at 12:51 AM, enginear wrote:

    I think there should be a booklist on TMF. These are good books, but there are more (its almost endless), and a good set of primers on finance would be great for those getting started in the rather opaque (in the beginning) world of investing.

    Ratings and intended audiences would be good - perhaps contributors should be encouraged to generate one.

    Just a suggestion.

  • Report this Comment On July 11, 2013, at 8:48 AM, TMFBane wrote:


    I think that's a great idea. Reading is a big part of investing, so having some sort of compendium of great books would be helpful.

    In the meantime, here's a list of classic investing books that I put together recently:

    10 Indispensable Books for Investing Better

    Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Report this Comment On July 12, 2013, at 12:47 PM, speedyedie13 wrote:

    The short, but powerful, Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was awesome. He was incredibly disciplined. And his take on government was very insightful. Really recommend it!

  • Report this Comment On July 12, 2013, at 12:56 PM, AbueloLoco wrote:

    Since most of these are long out of copyright, and therefor freely available, it might make sense to recommend that the Foolish (and frugal) reader pick them up for free at someplace like

  • Report this Comment On July 12, 2013, at 1:05 PM, TMFBane wrote:


    You are absolutely right! And the kindle versions of all of them except The Great Gatsby are free on So yeah, it's a pretty cost-effective education!

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